In the grip of anxiety, I feel scattered, small, and scared. Even though I feel that way, I don’t always act that way.
Last week I was leaving Trader Joe’s with my preschooler and infant in tow. Walking through the automatic doors into the blustery summer air, my son suddenly darted into the parking lot. “STOP!” I screeched.
I ran to him, grabbed his arm, and jerked him back to the sidewalk. With a cart full of groceries, a baby across my chest, and a red-faced toddler swatting at my arms, I probably looked as overwhelmed as I felt.
Sweating and seething, my heart beating fast, I reprimanded my son harshly and insisted that he hold my hand, ignoring all his protests and attempts to explain. A heated power battle ensued as I wrestled him into his car seat and we yelled all the way home.
My rational mind knew that I hadn’t handled the situation well (not even close). The more hysterical he became, the more empathetic I should have been. He’s only three years old. He depends on me to teach him how to self-regulate. Instead, I’d screamed at him.
The grounded part of me knew that I’d overreacted in the first place. My son hadn’t actually “darted” into the parking lot. In reality, he’d been walking alongside me, like he knows to do, but he picked up the pace a bit as we stepped outside, just as I was slowing down trying to figure out where I’d parked. I was already on edge, worked up about how much money we’d spent, how I’d fit everything into the car, which child to put in first, and how to keep the baby out of the blinding sun. I could have just told him to slow down and led him to the car, reiterating the importance of being careful around cars. Instead, I let the fear of what would happen if he ran ahead (it’s always the what-if’s) push me over that metaphorical edge and alter my perception of what was going on.
It’s what anxiety does.
Before becoming a mother, I naively assumed that I’d be a natural at pretty much all aspects of the job. After all, I loved kids, I’d been babysitting since I was 12, and I had all the patience in the world for the kids I cared for. Then I had my own and, much to my surprise and dismay, I discovered that I had a temper. A fiery hot temper that flared so often that I knew something had to change. First, I had to understand why I was acting that way – snapping at my toddler, raising my voice, using threats, and scaring him in the process. This was not the kind of mom I wanted to be and my son deserved much better. I felt the incredible bond we once had begin to crumble under the weight of my constant negativity.
Then one day, I thought of a phrase that I’d heard or read somewhere: “Negativity comes from fear.”
It clicked immediately. I get angry when I’m scared. Scared that my kids are going to get hurt, scared that they’ll never sleep through the night, scared that they’ll never listen to me, scared that I’m failing them, scared that I already have. There’s so much to worry about, and when that worry turns to panic, my fight-or-flight response kicks in. I’m a fighter.
It made so much sense. Negativity comes from fear.
An article was published on “The Mighty” recently speaking to this very idea – that for some people, anxiety manifests as anger, which can lead to hurtful and harmful misunderstandings. The author shares that instead of receiving comfort from her parents when she felt anxious as a child, she was often scolded, because instead of presenting as scared and vulnerable, she lost her temper. She refers to this experience as “anger-anxiety.” After reading this I realized that maybe I’m not the only one in my family acting from a place of fear. My son’s meltdowns may well be driven by anxiety, and what he needs most in those moments is a hug, not a time-out.
Intuitively, I know that. I’m a passionate fan of the positive parenting movement that promotes gentle approaches to discipline. “No Bad Kids” by Janet Lansbury is my parenting Bible, and I tune in every week to the Little Sprigs podcast: “The Path to Peace With Your Preschooler.” I believe in conscious and respectful parenting. I believe that connection is the key to helping children learn how to behave, and that parents have to be the calm in the midst of their kids’ chaos.
All of this is much easier in theory than in practice. When my anxiety attacks, I stop responding with care and sensitivity. Instead, I react.
The first step towards change is awareness. Now that I understand most of my scary-mommy moments stem from anxiety, I’m working on coping with my fears and identifying my triggers. I’m already making progress with responding more kindly and mindfully to my little guys’ age-appropriate (albeit sometimes frustrating) behavior. Whenever I’m on the brink of losing my cool, I now try to remember: negativity comes from fear.
In honor of July being Purposeful Parenting month, I challenge other parents to take a hard and close look inward at what’s preventing you from being the mom or dad you want to be. What personal struggle is standing in your way?